In 2015, EPSRC announced £10 million investment in five new research centres across the UK which would explore how mathematics and statistics can help clinicians to tackle serious health challenges such as cancer, heart disease and antibiotic resistant bacteria. Just three years on and the centres are producing world-class mathematical science- from developing new tools to enable earlier diagnosis of chronic diseases to new systems to improve the accuracy of clinical imaging.
In this blog, Dr Kyle Wedgwood discusses his research career and his work at the EPSRC Centre for Predictive Modelling in Healthcare at Exeter University.
The role of a mathematical modeller
Mathematics, like Marmite, is a divisive word. For some, it takes us back to a stuffy classroom in the post-lunchtime lull, trembling in fear that Mr Miller will pick us to solve the set of simultaneous equations he has just written on the board. For others, such as my colleagues and me here at the Centre for Predictive Modelling and Healthcare at the University of Exeter, it gives us a unique lens through which to view complex processes in health and disease.
Though we work on a veritable smorgasbord of biological problems, as mathematical modellers, we are united in that our approach relies on forming mathematical descriptions of the true system. These descriptions, or 'models', might be used, for example, to explore how seizures spread in epilepsy, the rhythms underlying stress or how digital GP records can be used to shape our interactions with practising clinicians. Like a pathologist examining body samples, the role of a mathematical modeller is to dissect away unnecessary, distracting details from our models, leaving only the important ones. From there, we can make predictions about how to better treat diseases, or even prevent them from occurring in the first place.
Having my cake and eating it
From a young age, I have been fascinated by mathematics, taking great pleasure in tackling the puzzles the subject offered. The decision to study mathematics at university was a straightforward one. This begs the question: why am I writing this blog from an experimental laboratory?
To answer this, we have to go back to Spire Hull and East Riding Hospital where I was lucky enough to have a summer job. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the hospital and so, as the summers went by, I became more and more intrigued by the thought of retraining as a medical doctor. This led to a quandary: should I continue my training in mathematics or try my luck at enrolling in a Graduate Entry Medicine programme? The answer to this conundrum came when I met Dr Godfrey Bwalya; a specialist in anaesthesia and critical care.
Dr Bwalya did things differently to many of the anaesthetists I had met. In particular, he was the first to introduce me to entropy models used for assessing the level of consciousness of patients under anaesthesia. He explained to me that mathematical models could be used alongside existing patient monitoring technology to provide real-time decision support to the anaesthetist. This was the first time I had been introduced to the notion that mathematics could go hand-in-hand with developments in medicine. I could have my cake and eat it. Following this revelation, I embarked upon a PhD in mathematical biology, and I haven't looked back since.
Interdisciplinary research: mathematical modelling meets getting my hands dirty
In my research, I explore how the ways in which systems interact and give rise to the complex dynamical behaviour we observe. In the context of diabetes, I investigate how networks of pancreatic beta cells work together to secrete insulin. Insulin is one of the key hormones that is involved in regulating blood glucose levels. Disruption of these cells, or interactions between them, can lead to poor control of blood glucose, and ultimately contribute to the development of diabetes. My primary goal for this work is to understand what types of interaction lead to optimal insulin secretion. Through better understanding of the network interactions, I hope to be able to uncover what features make beta cell networks resilient to external pressures, such as insulin resistance, and how to design networks to potentially transplant beta cells into diabetic patients to boost their secretory responses.
The project itself involves two complementary streams. The first is to develop new mathematical models of network behaviour. With this, I aim to grasp how differences between individual beta cells contribute to the overall network response. The second is to support these models by 'getting my hands dirty' and measuring real activity in beta cells and seeing how interactions modify this. It is my firm belief that closely integrating experimental and theoretical work is the best way to make progress in medical research.
The ethos of interdisciplinary research is one shared by all who work in our centre and is promoted heavily by Prof John Terry, who brought us all together. Importantly, the centre provides a vibrant training environment which we hope will ensure that our cross cutting approach will be at the heart of UK research for years to come.
The universality of mathematics as a tool to probe biomedical systems is highlighted by the diverse range of topics studied by the researchers. We have projects investigating how network disruption contributes to mental health issues, cardiac arrhythmias, stress, problems with reproduction and development, and how to use experimental data to improve diagnoses and prognoses of a number of diseases. In each of these projects, mathematics provides the backbone to make progress. Like Marmite, a bit of mathematics is good for your health!